Bears burned in Thomas Fire treated with fish skin, released back into wild

DAVIS, Calif. -- Two black bears were released back into the wild after being treated for severe burns they suffered in the Thomas Fire, thanks to the innovation and quick-thinking of a veterinarian at UC Davis.

Bear brought to CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab has severe third-degree burns on its paw. (Karin Higgins / UC Davis)

The two adult female bears were brought to the state wildlife lab in Sacramento with severe injuries to their paws. The injuries were so severe that the bears could not stand.

Jaime Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, was enlisted to help with pain management.

"What was so profound was how severe her wounds were. On all four feet, she had third-degree burns and all the skin was basically dead on top," Peyton said. "We had to get rid of that and clean up those wounds. When we put her back in her pen and woke her up, she was still very uncomfortable."

Peyton knew she needed to do more.

UC Davis and CDFW veterinarians carefully suture tilapia fish skin bandages to bear paws. (Karin Higgins / UC Davis)

"I couldn't put bandages on because they would eat them and it wasn't really a good idea when we can't access them on a regular basis," Peyton said.

That's when she remembered a Brazilian medical group using tilapia skin to treat burn victims.

"And I thought this would be a perfect solution for these animals. The skin itself is really strong and so it can really protect those areas," Peyton said.

Peyton and her team bought some tilapia from a local fish market, harvested the skin and sutured it to the bear's paws.

The fish skin not only protected the paws but also healed them.

The younger bear rests in her holding enclosure after her treatment is finished. The outer wrapping on her feet (made of corn husks) will delay her efforts to chew off the tilapia skin bandages underneath. (Photo / California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

"The other big factor with tilapia skin is it has a high concentration of collagens," Peyton said. "The bears really liked having them on. They felt less pain, they were more apt to stand and walk around."

The treatment marks the first time tilapia skin has been used to treat burns in the United States.

"These few animals have really helped to open up a new area in burn medicine that I think will continue to grow," Peyton said.

The technique has since also been used to treat a wounded mountain lion.

The animals have been released back into the wild and have been outfitted with satellite collars to monitor their health.